Gen X, born between the mid-1960s and the early ’80s, seems to have missed its moment. As one publication recently pointed out, there is no Gen-Xer president in view (Barack Obama, born in 1961, is a late Boomer). With the youngest of us now in our early 40s, it’s worth asking: What ever happened to Gen X?
The last generation to experience childhood without the internet, we depended on radio, television, and computer games to get us out of boredom (remember that?). We ran about without phones, parents only vaguely knowing where we were, and couldn’t wait to be adults, downing alcopop after alcopop in our quest for some mythical freedom. In hindsight, these were clearly a bid by Big Alcohol to bridge the soda-to-booze market, and to tip sugar-addicted kids onto the harder stuff, as well as steal back some of the market from ’90s fave MDMA, which generally induces its users to drink water instead.
We lived through the End of History, watching the Cold War dissolve in real time into one great spiritual McDonald’s, global and enternal. Blue Jeans and Democracy Forever. No more wars (pfft!), just an endless pick ’n’ mix of identities, products, and self-chosen values. Little did we suspect that 20 years later, Sandra from h.r. would be firing us for failing to adhere to the latest update to the cultural software, or that the compassion that was supposed to be at the heart of ’90s “political correctness” would be weaponized as part of a regime loyalty test. Postmodernism bites, I guess.
Then again, perhaps we are being deliberately thwarted. The Boomers’ refusal to come down from their long acid trip, let alone give up their institutional stranglehold, has come at the expense of Gen X, especially. And now they, the Boomers, might send the whole thing going kaboom, if they get the Cold War replay they seem to be jonesing for. It’s only with the specter of such a conflagration that the epic nature of the Golden Generation’s historical passage can, in true narcissistic style, be recognized. By trying to live forever, Boomers risk killing us all.
Though President Biden looks like the hollowed-out shell of a super-Boomer, he is technically a member of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945). Perhaps because there are only 20 million members of Biden’s generation left, it’s the cohort below him, 70 million strong, that possesses most of the wealth, owning 10 times as much as Millennials and twice as much as Gen X. While there is something a little arbitrary about discussing generation rather than class, it’s clear that generational logic is also, in part, a way of understanding class antagonism.
Gen X finds itself sandwiched between two larger generations—the Boomers still form more than 20 percent of the US population, with Millennials (1981-1996) reaching a similar share. Even the Zoomers (1997-2012) are more numerous than Gen X, although our failure to launch is perhaps ultimately more temperamental than numerical. Our refusal to embrace power takes the form of a Zen nihilism, a putting-into-practice of Bartleby the Scrivener’s great slogan of passive resistance: “I would prefer not to.” We did our best not to sell out, to get a life, to keep it real. Yet our oscillation between cynicism and sincerity masked a sense of purposelessness. We gave up before we started.
The flip side of Gen X’s apathy was substance abuse and suicide. Both when we were in our 20s and now in our 40s and 50s, Gen X dominates these melancholy statistics. In 2017, the age at which most Britons took their own lives was 49, according to the Office for National Statistics. Two decades earlier, it was at age 22. We may have tried to opt out of the rat race in some perverse bid to keep our hands (and souls) clean, but some of us ended up opting out of life altogether.
“Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage,” sang the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan. Unlike many of his grunge compatriots, he still lives. Many of the great artists and musicians who spoke for Gen X, though, are dead. We mourn, among others, Kurt Cobain, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Fisher, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Tupac Shakur, and David Foster Wallace.
We didn’t have identities, we had character. Life wasn’t a box, or a series of things we demanded others call us. We inherited existentialism’s commitment to becoming and thought of life as a series of open-ended experiences, some good, some bad, not a collection of categories or a series of complaints. Of those Gen-Xers who have done something with their lives—Elon Musk, Dave Chapelle, J. K. Rowling, Kanye West, and Jack Dorsey—what unites them is a willingness to say and do what is weird and potentially unpopular, even to the point of widespread social disapproval. I’m not sure, though, how we explain Justin Trudeau (born 1971). We’ll just take the L on that one.
The greatest literary documenters of Gen X—Brett Easton Ellis and the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland—were born at the beginning of the generation, in 1964 and 1961, respectively. Coupland first novel, 1991’s Generation X, captured the world of McJobs, ironic self-creation, and returning to live with your parents. What stands out on rereading his body of work, which describes the men and women born in the late 1950s and early ’60s, is an earnest commitment to storytelling. It is narrative, the novel suggests, that will get us through. When traditional institutions—family, education, religion—can no longer compete with the sheer possibilities presented by an endless consumerism and the listless reality of liberalism’s “success,” we have only each other to turn to, and authenticity (another Gen X obsession) consists in moving, as skilfully as possible, between fiction, biography, and memory. At the End of History, you have to invent your own.
So, does Gen X have anything to contribute today? In 2021, Coupland noted that “much of what we call a generation is simply a matter of any given temporal cohort’s tech exposure during their pre-pubescent neural wiring—plus exposure to global financial cycles.” Yeah, but it was our pre-pubescent neural wiring, Mr. Coupland! Younger critics are yet harsher, with Ben Sixsmith recently suggesting that “if you resent being ‘the forgotten generation,’ you have to ask yourself how much you are leaving to remember” (ouch, Ben, our blackouts and lengthy periods of inanition are who we are, man).
In 1975, Midge Decter, who died this summer at the age of 94, published Liberal Parents: Radical Children, which sought to rescue the children of the “youth revolution” from their various negative tendencies. Addressing in turn the dropout, the pothead, the sexual revolutionist, and the communard, Decter bemoaned the failure of the young to prosper, citing their inability to withstand hardship, to run the risk of failing, their self-regard, and their petty and Oedipal forms of rebellion. These children—who would become the parents of Gen X—were raised, Decter suggested, “exclusively on a principle of love,” by indulgent parents who refused to make themselves the authority on what is good and bad. These parents, in turn, ended up working two jobs in the name of liberation, and leaving their kids, Gen-Xers, to let themselves in and look after themselves. But to be honest, that’s what we thought adulthood was.
In the end, does it matter if a generation does little to be remembered by? If what you are known for is going to war and hoarding everything, then surely it’s better to slip away quietly instead. All this activity, growth, “progress,” anxiety—what is it all for? Gen X may have relaxed so much we have slipped into a historical coma from which we may never emerge. But at least we were cool. Well, we thought so, anyway.